Biographies of the Southeast Region
This unit of study, Biographies of the Southeast Region, was designed to incorporate material from social studies as well as skills and processes utilized in both reading and writing. Developed for use with fourth-grade students, the lessons contained in this unit span roughly three weeks. However, this time frame includes the possibility of multiple related lessons in one school day (e.g. one lesson during the time normally reserved for social studies, and another related lesson during writing). Consequently, one must be mindful of time considerations and plan accordingly.
In the fourth grade, students traditionally study the history of Michigan from statehood to the present, various regions of the United States (i.e. Midwest, Northeast, Southeast, Southwest, and West), and the fundamentals of a market economy. One of my original ideas was to focus on the history of Michigan by incorporating the study of biographies of famous individuals from Michigan and more locally important individuals (e.g. parents, grandparents, figures from the community or the community’s past). In this way, the students would be able to examine the relationship between human systems, specific individuals, and the geographical circumstances which all define the character of an area. Unfortunately, the students had already studied Michigan and the Midwest. Otherwise an integrated history of the state and specific individuals would have made an engaging project with connections to the communities in which these students reside.
Instead, I shifted the focus of our investigations to the next area we would be studying, the Southeast region. One of the organizing ideas in the study of the United States in the fourth grade is the manner in which the country can be divided into different regions based on a number of factors: climate, physical landforms, culture, history, economics and industry, etcetera. This content, according to the curriculum of the school, and the Calhoun Intermediate School District, would have to be covered in some fashion. But, I didn’t want to merely read through the social studies textbook and then test them on how much they remembered. In conversations I had already had with the students, several made it clear that they did not really understand the purpose of social studies. This was accentuated by a student asking why we were studying history. When I asked this student to explain, he was unable to articulate what he meant other than to say that he thought social studies was memorizing states and capitals.
In addition to covering the material in the social studies textbook, the students will spend more time looking at the history of this region and some of the notable people from the Southeast or associated with the history of this region (e.g. Harriet Tubman, Abraham Lincoln, and Sequoyah). Concurrent with the social studies lessons will be reading and writing lessons which extend the learning taking place. Literature circles will be used to examine a number of nonfiction texts related to the Southeast region as well as biographical texts about important figures. During our writing time, students will focus on understanding the difference between autobiography and biography, practicing writing both (i.e. an autobiography about themselves and a biography about a peer). The students will then utilize some of these same skills to research a notable person, completing both a written report and presenting their information to their peers orally.
The purpose of this unit is both to cover required content and to make explicit the connections between different disciplines. The study of content knowledge can bolster work done in other areas, and the skills, strategies and processes can be used to engage students in more meaningful work than reading a chapter and completing a worksheet. For example, students will learn what some notable landforms are located in the Southeast and what the Underground Railroad was. However, they will also use critical thinking skills to consider why these are important, and why it is important to know them. In this way, I hope to give the study of the Southeast region some purpose. Furthermore, the students will hopefully develop both a sense of inquiry about topics like geography and history, but they will also practice strategies and skills that will enrich all learning, not just in these specific areas.